Being Mortal

I started reading Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal nearly a year ago and somehow never got around to finishing it. It’s admittedly a difficult read in the sense that it can be overwhelming at times. I finally finished it last night partly because my wife wanted to start it on the Kindle and also because my grandfather, or as everyone called him, Dada passed away on Sunday. He was the last of my immediate grandparents to pass away.

By all measures, he lead a good and charmed life. He was 95 and suffered from no major illness apart from heart disease that afflicts all Indian males. He lived couple of blocks from my parents and my dad regularly checked on him; so much so that my dad would refuse to come visit us for more than a few weeks because he didn’t want to leave Dada alone in case “something happened”. The “something” never happened. Dada was never limited in his movements and walked all around the town as far as I can remember. He passed away peacefully during his afternoon nap. It’s the kind of death that everyone wishes for but very few get. He outlived my grandmother who couldn’t recognize her own son by the time she passed away, by three and half years. Dada had a fractious relationship with his children and grandchildren. As they say, if you can’t say anything good about a person after he’s dead, you are better off not saying anything. So I’ll not say anything. All I’ll say is that I hope I don’t end up like him in spite of him leading a charmed life.

Going back to Gawande’s book, the premise focuses on the quality of life rather than the length of life and more specifically, the manner in which you choose to pass away. Medical science has advanced to such a degree that humans can be kept alive for a much longer time than you would imagine. But no one has stopped to ask the question of whether we should. Or as in Amitabh’s immortal (no pun intended) words, yeh jeena bhi koi jeena hai. Gawande cites several examples from his professional and personal life that focuses on the individual’s choice on care and ultimately, way to die. The Republicans’ favorite chant ‘death panels’ actually referred to the end of life counseling that doctors offered their patients. It’s the ultimate decision you can take for your life.

You do not choose to be born in this world and as of today, most laws even prevent you from actively choosing to die but at least you can choose the way you die when and only when you’re diagnosed to. The DNR is the most commonly known legal process in our pop culture and medical professionals are taught to honor it just as they’re taught to honor the first do no harm principle. Others like hospice care are fraught with emotions that you may not be fighting back hard enough. But after a while, it’s useless fighting nature.

Being Mortal will not only make you aware of your mortality but actually prepare you for it. I say that in the most humble and optimistic way. You aren’t immortal. You’re going to die. You’re born in perhaps one or two ways but you can die in umpteen different and uncharacteristic ways. The worst I believe, waiting to die which can be a long and painful process not only for the person but also for their loved ones. Modern medicine can perhaps keep you alive for as long as it is possible today but it’s entirely within your rights and choice to decide when enough is enough.

Even before I finished reading the book or even before hearing about Dada’s death, we had confirmed our appointment for signing our living wills and codifying end-of-life processes with an estate planning attorney. I have had the conversation with my brother about his role in the process. It reminded him to do the same as well. It’s the conversation we should feel comfortable having with our loved ones. It shouldn’t take a death to start having that conversation.

‘The Whites’ by Richard Price – Review

The WhitesThe Whites by Harry Brandt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If your idea of a crime drama is CSI or even Law & Order, you may want to skip this book. But if you want a truer and a more vivid look at life of cops in NYC, you may like ‘The Whites’ by Harry Brandt (a pseudonym of Richard Price). The story follows the life of the protagonist, Billy Graves, who is now a sergeant at the Manhattan Night Watch, a small team of detectives charged with responding to all post-midnight felonies. This tale is deeply enmeshed with his time with an aggressive anti-crime unit known as the Wild Geese in the mid-90s. The toll it took on him and his colleagues during that time forms the basis of this crime drama.

By the way, The ‘whites’ is akin to ‘white whale’ a la Moby Dick to signify the ones who got away and consider it your life’s mission to pursue. However, I did not find it a page-turner in the traditional sense and it’s less of a whodunnit and more of a whydunnit but nevertheless it’s engrossing. You do have to keep up with being introduced to several characters which may be disproportionate to the size of the book. The ambiance of the book is very NYC and gritty and can be considered the urban drama of our times. Don’t expect any #BlackLivesMatter angle to this tale though. It’s a tale of a man fighting his conscience while dealing with the hard nature of his work and protecting his family.

Books I read in 2015

Reading-wise, 2015 was pretty weak since I managed to fully read only seven books. There were a few books that I started but got bored of them. I reviewed the ones I completed on GoodReads but a better place to also save those reviews is on this blog so I’m cut-pasting them here.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying UpThe Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kond?
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A perfect accompaniment for my recent obsession with decluttering. Contrary to what most believe, decluttering is less about owning less and more about owning what really matters to you. As Kondo states repeatedly, keep only the things that give you joy and discard the rest regardless of how important it once was to you or even how important you think it may be sometime (codeword for never) in the future. Although she repeats herself a lot in the first few chapters, I think the subject demands that she do because unlearning what most of us consider normal behavior can take a little bashing in.

After stressing on the importance of discarding, Kondo spends the majority of the rest of her book by offering practical tips that let you discard more and often. Although she is at loss for words at times to explain her ways making her resort to spiritual reasons, her intentions are clear. As most Japanese, she anthropomorphizes inanimate objects but there is a method to her quirky obsessive methods. She even tackles the holy grail of book ownership that most bibliophiles put beyond debate.

Overall, it is an enlightening read and probably you may even chose to read it again to be inspired once more. I’ve definitely learned a lot and even implemented several of her techniques in addition to taking her advice to heart. My house is much more lighter now but definitely more airy and a pleasant space to be in.

Continue reading

Getting Reading Done

Last month, I got an iPad Mini from my workplace. Apart from my work-related apps, I decided to not install Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, or any social media apps [1]. Instead first, I choose to install only Kindle, iBooks, and Instapaper apps. Not even Flipboard or Zite that usually has short news stories. I made this decision consciously as I wanted to get back to my long-form reading habit. It’s almost impossible to get any done during the daytime either due to work commitments or other distractions on other devices. I’ve tried the ‘will power’ and ‘self control’ thing [2] but judge me all you want, it doesn’t work for me. So I had to get my reading done at night in bed [3] . That was usually when I wasted time on Reddit. Ick! Now I feel so bad about it.

Second, I made a conscious decision to also leave my personal iPad Air downstairs each night. I got only my phone that I need to charge at my bedside. I carried my iPad Mini to bed so I had no choice but to read only books or long-form articles. I got the iPad on April 24 and I’ve tried to read books every night ever since. So how did I fare?

Books Read Post-iPad Mini

Source: If you know my real name or are my Facebook friend, you can read my ratings/reviews on GoodReads.

I surprised myself by completing 8 books; more than I had read in the eight months prior to that. Of course, most were non-fiction but I prefer those nowadays over fiction. I wasn’t tried to speed-read so I was also surprised that I could read just as quickly as before. I’m glad to know that this skill doesn’t diminish over time due to lack of practice. I’m trying to get back into reading fiction. Thankfully Ash reads a lot of fiction and knows my preferences so recommends books that I’ll enjoy. The benefits of this re-discovered albeit forced habit of reading books are the usual and obvious ones. As an added benefit, I can now fall asleep much quicker and often sleep better. I used to be an insomniac but it looks like those days are past me. Ash is a voracious reader too so our Kindle app is always bursting with new books [4]. I’ve started frequenting our public library often too. Luckily, Austin’s public library has a lot more ebooks available that you can directly download to your Kindle app. Two of the above eight books were paper books so it’s not like I’m completely relying on eBooks.

I would heartily recommend following my method. If you don’t have the luxury of owning two iPads, you can always delete the social media off your primary iPad and rely on your phone. Or simply buy the Kindle device. It’s well worth it. Happy reading!

  1. My workplace doesn’t explicitly disallow us from installing or using them on work devices. As long as you get your work done, no one really cares what you do []
  2. I don’t mean the apps that disbar you from accessing sites for a fixed period of time []
  3. Nope, the screen neither troubles me nor affects my sleep. In fact, I fall to asleep quicker and sleep better after reading books. []
  4. She has finally moved past paper books to ebooks simply due to the convenience factor although she uses Kindle device and not the app []

All Ye Readers, Lend Me Your Ears

His impersonation of a Kenyan accent was almost spot-on; especially admirable since he was imitating his sister, Alma’s voice. Her story narrated in his voice with a Kenya accent added that extra bit of special sauce. These deft touches made listening to Barack Obama’s ‘Dreams from my Father’ an enjoyable experience.

Yes, I said listening, not reading. You see, due to a certain change in my professional status, I have to commute to Austin 2-3 times a week. Driving time each way is approximately 2 hours which roughly gives me 8-12 hours a week when I’m doing nothing but staring at the road ahead of me. There are only so many podcasts you can listen to; after all ‘This American Life’ and ‘Wait…Wait…Don’t Tell Me’ are weekly shows (warning! NPR Liberal alert) that last only an hour. I had heard, no pun intended, and read about audiobooks but like everyone else had thought of them as an unintelligent medium of reading books or rather meant for geriatric souls who had failing eyesight. But then I never had a long commute ever in my life.

First, I checked out our local library online which had a limited collection of e-audiobooks that you could download and sync to your iPod/iPhone. I even found an app OneClickDigital that let you stream your checked-out books without downloading them. I listened to my first audiobook ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ this way. How was my experience? To be frank, I loved it. Of course, it helps that Jonathan Safran Foer is an amazing writer and has an engaging narrative even for the most mundane tales.

So far, in nearly two months that included the Christmas break when I didn’t commute, I have read two books – ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ and ‘Dreams from my Father’ – and am halfway through my third, Shakespeare: The World As Stage (Eminent Lives) by Bill Bryson. In a world of Twitter, Facebook, and my RSS feed reader, this may have been my most prolific ‘reading’ periods in recent times. Admittedly, if I was reading them the traditional way, I would’ve definitely read more books in the same time but then before I was commuting, I never did, for whatever reason. Also, there is an extremely limited collection of in-app audiobooks so a wider selection is available in the physical library in form of CDs (yes, they still exist). So given my experience, would I recommend audiobooks? The answer is, with due apologies to economists, depends.

If you were not forced to sit in one place and had to listen to an audiobook, you will get bored easily. Audiobooks work great when driving because you can do nothing else but listen. But practical reasons aside, audiobooks are different in a way that you get to experience the book in a different light. Usually, they are read by the author (not always a good idea; more on that later) so audible cues, intonation, tone, pronunciation [1], etc. are just few of the many advantages audiobooks enjoy over paper books. You still get to let your imagination go wild, like you do with traditional books. I still could visualize the characters and the locations, like I would while reading a paper book. When read by a person well versed in communication like Barack Obama, the experience is manifold. The fact that he is narrating his life story adds passion to his narration and makes it more personal. Like I mentioned at the beginning of this post, he adroitly uses accents to add special touches to his narration. In the ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ audiobook, chapters are narrated by different people since the writing is in the first person by different characters. This helps you form bonds with not only the writing but also with the voice narrating the chapter.

On the flip side, narration doesn’t always work especially if it is done by the author who is not exactly known for his spoken word. I was quite disappointed with Bill Bryson’s narration. Bryson, I must add, is one of my favorite authors and I have read almost all of his books and I love his eclectic sense of humor. But his tone in narrating ‘Shakespeare’ could’ve been better and it almost lulled me to sleep one foggy morning.

I have never shied away from consuming content in any non-traditional mediums. I’m not one of those ‘hold on to your paper books forever’ types. For me, the content is more important than the medium itself. I love paper books, ebooks, and now audiobooks, as long as the content is interesting and engaging. I still love thumbing through books and browsing bookcases at the local Barnes & Noble but I will not berate anyone who chooses ebooks over paper books. Everyone who wrote letters now write emails and exchange chat messages instead of talking over the phone. So why hang on to only books for nostalgia’s sake?

  1. there are a few words I learned how to pronounce without being ashamed to ask []

“I’m a Pole, So Can You”

I don’t watch the Colbert Show regularly (don’t judge me, a man has only so much time) but his interview are hilarious and 1000x better than Jon Stewart’s show. This interview with Maurice Sendak, the acclaimed author of many children’s books (Where the Wild Things Are), is great on many levels including the book that Stephen writes and reads out for Sendak.

The Crazy One

I finished reading the official Steve Jobs biography by Walter Issacson last week. It was the fastest I read a 700-page book in a long time. This book is a must-read for anyone remotely interested in the Apple philosophy or even the lives of businessmen especially the ones who rise, crash, and then rise to even greater heights. It will also make for interesting reading for those interested in product design and business. I heartily recommend this book to anyone starting out on their professional life albeit with a big bold disclaimer that there could only be one Steve Jobs so don’t go about WWSJD once you are done reading. This is by no means, a book review but instead just a few thoughts post-reading.

As his reputation preceded him, Issacson paints a vivid picture of Jobs’ eccentricities especially in his early year when he partnered with the other Steve (Wozniak). The pre-iPod days of Steve Jobs are perhaps more fun because one, we weren’t privy to most of them and two, because some of the incidents were so outlandish. Everyone overwhelmingly agrees that Steve Jobs was an asshole of the highest order but yet he commanded a devoted following not just among his friends but also among countless of his consumers. His life was a never-ending quest for striving to achieve perfection in his own way and caring little for anyone else’s emotions or sentiments.

As a consumer, I couldn’t be more pleased with his ambition but I’m sure his friends found it hard to be around him. Everyone loves Bill Gates and applauds his richness and current wave of philanthropy but also admit that his company, Microsoft made crappy products. I am reminded of a similar comparison in Indian architecture circles when I was in college. As rumor had it, Hafeez Contractor, the architect of Hiranandani Complex at Powai was considered to be a genial guy and he was minting money building pseduo-Disney buildings in Bombay in the mid-90s. On the other hand, Charles Correa, the architect of select structures like Kanchenjunga apartments in Bombay and later, the Madhya Pradesh Vidhan Sabha was rumored to be a dour and grumpy fellow who chewed off his junior architects. Yet in architecture college, you couldn’t be caught dead saying that you wanted to be the next Hafeez (Half-Fees) Contractor and rather toil under the insulting eyes of Charles Correa. Similarly, Jobs gave his employees and partners hell, made them rework their designs, and even claimed some of their ideas as his own but at the end of the day, the same employees swore loyalty to him in a way that no motivation seminar could. Perhaps, he just made them strive a little more harder than they thought they could to make products that they would be proud of (the original Reality Distortion Field).

As with every genius, his personal life until much later was utter shit. His premonitions that he would have a short life made him focus completely on his work in his attempt to build a legacy of excellent products that people will remember him by (he largely succeeded) often at the expense of his loved ones. He was very selective in his affections, perhaps due to the fact that he was abandoned by his birth parents and often deliberately hurt people he loved a la Tony Soprano. Strangely though, his children, his sister, and even his wife while being fully aware of his erratic affections were deeply in love with the man. He was a true-blue hippie from the 60s and remained so right until his death when he preferred a nature diet of fruits instead of cancer medication. It is amazing to see how a person who professionally built futuristic products that his competitors couldn’t even imagine could be such a Luddite in terms of personal health and diet. But that’s how geniuses operate.

Steve Jobs was not a particularly smart man but he was a genius in a way that he knew how to push people’s buttons to get them to do really smart things. He had an eye for design and was ruthless in his drive for creating products his way that he considered superior. He wasn’t always right and often failed spectacularly but strangely, that never made him compromise his principles. Not every human can be that way. He manipulated, coaxed, cajoled, and eventually convinced people that his way was the best way. Someone on Twitter remarked that we should be thankful that he was brought up in Silicon Valley and hence ventured into the technology industry otherwise he would’ve been holed up in a compound leading a band of followers in a ritualistic cult. Indeed.

Go the F**k to Sleep

[Source: YouTube – Go the F**k to Sleep – read by Samuel L. Jackson]

This is how we feel most nights (or days) these days. Just when you think you have figured out his sleep pattern, he throws you a googly to mess with you. Eventually, we hope to get him to sleep on command and then we’ll bring out those oh-so-sweet bedtime storybooks. Until then, Samuel Jackson to the rescue.

We Know What and How You Are Reading

Most e-readers, like Amazon’s Kindle, have an antenna that lets users instantly download new books. But the technology also makes it possible for the device to transmit information back to the manufacturer.

“They know how fast you read because you have to click to turn the page,” says Cindy Cohn, legal director at the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation. “It knows if you skip to the end to read how it turns out.”

[Source: Is Your E-Book Reading Up On You?] Whoa! Whoa! Hang on, now does Amazon really transmit this information back to the publisher? I may not have a problem with Amazon doing this but at least let me have the illusion of control over my privacy by checking a box saying I Agree. Considering how Amazon will not even tell you how many Kindles it has sold so far, I doubt they are in the business of making their data collection practices transparent. For the record, I do not skip to the end to read how it turns out so don’t believe Amazon when it tells you I do.

Breaking The Sentimental Attachment To Books

"Today, I am the proud owner of approximately 20 books – six of which are craft books. To move from one extreme to the other took some serious work, and was not an overnight process. It started with the realization that I was not so much attached to the stories and words themselves, but the physical books sitting on the shelves. Once I had that realization, I began to let go of some of my books, and moved slowly towards a more minimalist reading collection."

As we move toward ebooks or reading online, physical books retain is a nostalgic reminder of an activity that we once enjoyed. Mind you, that we still enjoy reading however, the mode of reading has changed. And it should. After all, shouldn't the content matter more than the medium? Admittedly we are not there yet but are definitely headed that way.

[Link to Breaking The Sentimental Attachment To Books]

Behind the Hardy Boys

"Franklin W. Dixon never existed. Franklin W. Dixon was a "house name," owned by a company called the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which created and published the original Hardy Boys. From 1927 through 1946 each Hardy Boys book was secretly written by a man named Leslie McFarlane."

Sigh! And to think that I used to hunt down every Hardy Boys book ever written although I passionately hated the Case Files.

[Link to Behind the Hardy Boys]

Total Number of Books in the World

"After we exclude serials, we can finally count all the books in the world. There are 129,864,880 of them. At least until Sunday."

Google counts all the books in the world and explains how it did it. This does not however represent all the human knowledge which may be contained in mediums other than books. Yes, that includes blogs too.

[Link to Total Number of Books in the World]

But Ars Technica thinks Google’s methods and numbers are bunk.

Apple’s E-Book Reader coming Spring 2010

“At this stage Apple appears to be sizing its supply chain to support production of as many as 1M units per month.” Reiner noted that Apple would need several weeks to build up inventory for a launch, meaning we could see an Apple tablet around March or April. This agrees with previous rumors that suggested a launch in the first half of 2010.”

[Source: Analyst: Apple tablet launching in spring to crush Kindle] After plenty of rumor swirling, it is expected that Apple might be releasing a tablet version of its computers and pitching it as a e-book reader apparently to compete directly against the Kindle. Having used Apple products (MacBook Pro, iPod Touch, and the iPhone) now, I expect this latest offering from Apple to be leaps ahead of its competitors.

I’ve been putting off buying an e-book reader for months now in hopes that Apple comes up with something and thankfully, I will not be waiting too long now. But of course, given how Apple shafts early adopters of its products, it might be worth it to wait a while even after the tablet is first launched.

Update I: Apparently, Apple has reserved a stage at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco for several days in late January. Rumors are swirling that Apple might be ready to announce it’s tablet/e-book reader at this time. Also, people have unearthed that Apple owns the domain name, iSlate, which may be what they are calling the tablet. Let’s hope these rumors are true.

Update II: Apple announced its tablet computer, the iPad on January 27th, 2010 as an intermediary device between smartphones and laptops. The reviews for the iPad spanned a wide spectrum.

Do you read (paper) books anymore?

I don't read books anymore: “That’s not precisely true, but my book reading is down to a trickle of what it used to be. Most of my reading happens online for and when I’m through with all that, the last thing I want to do is tuck into a book, no matter how good it is. But what I really haven’t been doing is talking about the books I’ve read or am interested in reading if I had the time. Oh, there have been a few mentioned on the site recently, but there are many more1 stacked on the bedside table, on the shelf next to where I put my keys, and in the ‘to shelve’ pile near the bookshelves that have gone unmentioned.”

[Via] Amen. Like Jason, I have piles of books left to read; most of which are review copies sent in by publishers for my Urban Planning blog. Since I’m on their mailing list now, they send in the copies without even asking and so the pile keeps growing. And I always mean to get around to reading them. I start a book but lose interest so have quite a few with bookmarks stuffed in them at different intervals.

When I flew to Chicago last weekend, I finally got around to reading Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guide to the Energy Crisis and I’ll post my review soon. But unless, I have to read a dead-tree book now, I rarely do and most of my reading is done online. Even the scholarly journal articles are read online complete with annotations and notes in Adobe Professional. Only when I have to interactive with the content manually, as we did for a house plan that we were looking at that I decided to print it out. This is by no means only from an environmental perspective. If you detach yourself from the emotional and nostalgic feeling of reading paper books, there is little reason to persist with paper books. It is just that I find reading and storing from paper copies cumbersome and I spend my day in front of the computer anyway so the only time I actually have an inclination to hold up a paper book or a magazine is when I go to bed. Hence the pile of books on the bedside table.

Life Magazine Online for Free

Google Books put all issues of Life Magazine online for free dating back to the first one published on November 23rd, 1936 [via].

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